Muscle Dysmorphia is defined as a disorder that deals with obsession over the perceived muscularity of one’s body. Simply, it is the psychology that one’s body is too thin and not muscular enough. Essentially, Muscle Dysmorphia (M.D.) is the male reverse counterpart to female Anorexia nervosa. It is categorized as a branch of obsessive compulsive disorder and is VERY COMMON in today’s gyms and society…much more than we think. I will admit that some define M.D. is NOT an over-interest in gaining muscle that is considered not wise, but this is what I mostly will refer to (as many characteristics of M.D. carry over to this mentality). This article will show you why people seem to get M.D. and how to cope with the real issues of its detrimental effects.
To begin, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the fitness goal of hypertrophy, or gaining muscle. It improves performance, positive physiology, vitality, strength, power, functionality, and mentality. Yet there is something at work in the minds of men (and women) that want purely the result of more muscle and become obsessed about it. Before I talk about the potential causes, let’s discuss the common detriments:
- M.D. creates a network of gym-goers that melts into a flawed “norm” for weight training. We see this often with high schoolers that are just getting into the gym and look to the guy with biggest muscles for mentorship. Should those suffering from M.D. really be trusted to indoctrinate developing humans with sub-par nutrition advice, unhealthy obsessions with weight lifting (and unsafe, more on that later) and a downward spiraling psychology that they are never good enough? I think not. And it’s not just high school-aged children, but children of all ages and adults both younger and older.
- The obsession over building muscle can take away from the benefits of other modes of exercise. For example, many of those who have M.D. will say “never do cardio” for the sake of expending fewer calories that could go towards the process of protein synthesis that is involved in building muscle. I’m not saying this does not work, but they may be missing out on essential, research-backed cardiovascular benefits. Think of ALL the various movement patterns not incorporated in traditional exercises that your body never gets to experience. I’m a strong believer in the Uncle Ben philosophy that if you have potential to do well, you are obligated to do it (even if that includes moving your body in all three planes of motion). With great hypertrophy comes great responsibility.
- Mindsets stemming from M.D. flow directly into the nutrition and supplement industry, who gives a more-than-steady stream of products that claim to “help you get bigger” in order to meet demands. In addition to being a money cow, is this direction really what we need in an undernourished America? Even physique competitors (who are slightly more justified to develop M.D.) are rushed to hospitals from kidney failures and other physiological malfunctions from jumping into using some supplements (not necessarily in excess, either). Keep in mind that not all supplements are created equal, and stick to the essentials if you need them (multivitamin, fish oil, vegetable supplements, and protein if needed).
- Constantly tending to the desires associated with M.D. TAKES A LOT OF TIME. Normally, I would condone clocking in more hours at the gym, but it can get to a point of excess. I have dealt with clients whom let their obsession prevent them from everything from getting a job, to not facing problems at home, to performing poorly in school, and to achieving serious life ambitions. With all that time spent in a gym, people must understand it is necessary to pay attention to other aspects of health outside of exercise. Due to this time restriction, many will turn to performance-enhancing drugs.
- The ideas of a “good diet” get misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. Primarily, I am talking about the obsession over protein (as reflected by the supplement industry). It is true that people incorporating resistance training and who want to gain muscle mass SHOULD increase their protein intake generally from 0.8 grams/kg/bodyweight to 1-2 grams/kg/bodyweight, but this is often mistaken as an invite for protein overconsumption. This excessive protein intake can lead to renal problems, decreased energy, the reliance upon less-efficient metabolic systems, as well as other health issues.
- The most obvious (to me, but is the most overlooked) is the symptoms associated with overtraining, as well as overreaching (which is often a precursor to overtraining). Some symptoms are insomnia, mood fluctuations, injury, pain, feeling “washed-out”, decreased appetite, depression, decrements in performance, and an increase in compulsiveness to exercises (vicious cycle or what?). Some may aspire to become as big as their idols, but may fail to realize their genetics do not allow for it.
- Social aspects can also be heavily affected in relevance to someone with M.D., as well as for those around them. If one person is obsessed with M.D. and they happen to gain a large amount of muscle mass successfully, others may look to that individual with envy, sometimes even with “muscle worship”. The individual with M.D. will begin to “mentor” those who envy them, entailing some detriments mentioned above. They can also create a sense of unnecessary masculinity within a social environment, leading to the lowering of self-efficacy in those who are not “up to par” with how muscular they feel they should be. This is a strange phenomenon since large amounts of muscle mass are not normative, but the psychology to move in that direction is so great that the mindset itself become pandemically normal.
You may be wondering if these detriments are as bad as they sound. They are indeed generally varied from individual to individual, but there are noticeable trends in the characteristics I have explained. Spend some time at the gym observing how others train and interact with resistance training, and you will see many of them in action for yourself.
Strategies and Solutions for Dismantling Dysmorphia:
Hopefully by now you can see how a mentality of needing to always gain more muscle mass can rob healthy habits from other aspects of life. I will now share some strategies and behaviors that can diminish the detrimental effects associated with M.D.-like mentalities.
- EDUCATE YOURSELVES! There are several reasons as to why some individuals are so inclined to believe everything someone says especially when it may not be true or backed up by evidence. If someone is successful, we may think what made them successful might work for us. WRONG! Everybody is an individual, and I’ll just leave it at that. Many have a “learned helplessness”, where we expect quality education to come to us. This state makes people more susceptible to believe what is put in front of them, which is why shows like Dr. Oz are a hit in America. Bottom line, high-quality and research-backed education should be sought out and integrated into individual lifestyles. Some of my favorite websites that cite reliable sources and remain unbiased while covering popular topics include www.precisionnutrition.com, www.examine.com, www.integrativenutrition.com, and www.ideafit.com.
- Set goals for yourself, so as not to pick up on those of others. Being truly independent with your mindset and motivation is to not take what others give. Establish you OWN foundation. This does not mean do not seek inspiration, education and direction from others; you really should. Here are some common guidelines for goal setting as outlined by the acronym “SMART”.
*Look to my earlier posts for more detailed outlines of goal setting and changing your mindset.
- Seek professional advice to make sure your plans pertain to your goals. Yes, even if the biggest guy in the gym says that bench pressing as much weight as you can is the holy grail of gaining muscle, he does not know your individual physiology, needs, sensitivities to certain modes of exercise, or specific goals. Seek advice from trusted fitness professionals with education behind them. Unfortunately, nowadays a personal trainer certification does not mean they have science-backed education.
- Keep your workouts relevant and wise. There are endless combinations of variables to modify within your workouts (tempo, reps, sets, distance, load, rest time, plane of motion, etc) but you must make them relevant to your goals. For example, training for a volleyball season by running very long distances could be counterproductive to increasing performance, when instead shorter duration exercises with more powerful movements would be more appropriate. The most common and most drastic mistake I see those with traits similar to M.D. make is the misconception of recovery time. Many of these people will come in day after day for their workouts (and sometimes doing the same things…even worse) and not give their selves a single day off, as they are afraid they will lose progress. I will never forget the time I had to spend 20 minutes convincing a friend of mine to take some time off from the gym, and the internal conflict with his obsession was saddening to observe. Understand that after a training period (especially high intensity) recovery can IMPROVE results. After all, recovery is when the body’s response to adapting to the stresses you put upon it previously occurs. Have you ever taken an entire week off of resistance or high intensity-training? Depending on your program, you can return bigger, stronger, and with increased performance.
- Maintain a quality diet. Want to get bigger? Eat more, move a little less. Want to get smaller? Move more, eat less. But the quality of your diet will also aid the quality of your results. Use high quality supplements (proven to work, of course), don’t eat crap, and make sure it’s a balanced diet related to your goals and body type (research a lot). You don’t have to worry about how you think you should go on the Paleo diet because every other guy is doing it…this isn’t cigarettes you know.
- Surround yourself with a supportive and knowledgeable social network. Do not rely on the people making you feel insignificant to get you to your goals. After you have the tools and the planning, ask for support from credible individuals and people that will encourage and support you positively. We are influenced heavily by environment, so create a positive environment for yourself.
Fitness, nutrition and its related mindsets do not have to be confusing, intimidating and misleading. As long as you take initiative to help yourself and others, there is nothing to fear!